Spring football Q&A: Washington State coach Paul Wulff

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Not everything went smoothly during Paul Wulff's first year as Washington State's head coach, starting with a 2-11 finish.

Moreover, he's going to miss the first three days of the Cougars' fall practices because of NCAA sanctions he incurred for violations that happened while he was head coach at Eastern Washington.

But the Cougars also posted a comeback victory in the Apple Cup, dumping Washington into the basement of the Pac-10, and outdid the Huskies during recruiting.

So there is some positive momentum as he looks toward his second season.

It seemed like a good time to check in with Wulff as he and his staff prepare for spring practices, which start March 26.

First, what's the latest on quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, who's coming back from a knee injury [and a suspension for a February arrest for an underage alcohol offense]?

Paul Wulff: I think he's going to be do everything but the team segments. A lot of individual work and he'll be able to some 7-on-7 drills.

So he's been reinstated from suspension?

PW: Yes. He had a lot of things to do, but yeah.

Let's put a cap on the 2008 season: First, what went right?

PW: After we played USC [on Oct. 18] we had a bye week, and I think our team changed a lot from a personality standpoint. We grew a lot. I know we didn't play well next against Stanford for a number of reasons, but really after that our team just played better football. We grew a lot. We played much more competitively against Arizona State and then Washington and Hawaii. We just played better. We tried not to compare ourselves against anyone else, we just compared ourselves to ourselves. And we improved as a football team down the stretch.

And what was the root of the struggles?

PW: It was a combination of things. It really wasn't one thing. I think as coaches, we demanded and changed so much of what these players were asked to do, from what they were accustomed to doing, on and off the field. I think there was a natural -- not an intentional resistance -- but just a little bit of what you would say is a culture shock to the system. I think that was part of the issue, in addition to trying to replace some key parts. We lost a four-year starter at quarterback [Alex Brink], we lost a couple of receivers and a tight end who had opportunities in the NFL. It was tough to replace all that experience. And then the injuries on the offensive side of the ball -- the quarterback situation. On defense it was similar, losing both safeties, some defensive tackles, we just couldn't overcome that. Our offense then put even more pressure on our defense. I know before our offense at Washington State has always been very successful. A lot of times that goes hand-in-hand with your relieving your defense, and we weren't able to do that last year.

What was the message in recruiting this winter?

PW: The message is Washington State is a great, great place for so many reasons. You've got an opportunity to come in and make a major difference right away, an opportunity to play right away at a special place. Washington State is unique compared to all other nine teams in the Pac-10. For the people who went to Washington State and know what it really, truly is all about, they understand that. It's a special place in all of college athletics, period. The people that have been around it and been a part of it understand that. And Washington State has been to the Rose Bowl, prior to this last year, two of the last 10 years [1998 and 2003], and that's more than anyone else other than USC. I think it can be done at Washington State. We just got to bring it back. We've got a lot of new facilities that are growing to keep up with everybody. So we're very excited about the opportunity and I think kids see that and buy that as well.

Did things feel any different in recruiting when Washington hired Steve Sarkisian?

PW: Not really. Everything was pretty much the same. Anytime you have a coaching change, a staff change, there's always that new energy and hope. Any school you are recruiting against, regardless of the team, when there's a new staff there's always renewed energy for a little while. But I think that all slows down after a year or so. There was obviously a breath of fresh air on their side of it, no question.

How do you expect things to go in the Washington-Washington State rivalry with you and Sarkisian -- there have been some great personality contrasts in the past with Jim Walden and Don James? Do you think you will be able to maintain some civility?

PW: I think so. I've always been a big believer in having fun with the game. It's very, very competitive. I don't think we're the different type of personalities that are polar opposites like Don James and Jim Walden were -- James said he was always a 2,000-word underdog. I don't think either one of us is going to feel that way. It might be a little different and it may evolve over time. I do believe this. I believe both schools will be much more competitive and will improve. But it's going to be a process for both places.

Who are some players who are having good offseasons?

PW: We've been pleased with a number of kids. B.J. Guerra, an offensive lineman, has done some nice things in the weight room. [California transfer] James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy, running backs, both those kids have done a nice job. Defensively, Kevin Kooyman, a defensive end, [end] Jesse Feagin, a kid we redshirted last year, has done a nice job improving himself, along with Alex Hoffman, a linebacker, a junior college kid we redshirted. Those are just a few of them who have done some nice things in the weight room and improved themselves. There are more than that, but those are a few that not many people have heard of.

Where will leadership come from on this team?

PW: That's the key. Any good team, from pro all the way down, has to have some strong leadership. We're trying to develop that. I think it's starting to grow on our football team as we speak. In that category, [offensive lineman] Kenny Alfred is the guy. He's one of those guys who has a special quality of grabbing the whole football team. He's a special player with great intelligence. I think [linebacker] Andy Mattingly is another one. I think also [safety] Xavier Hicks. Those guys stick out to me.

You brought in a no-huddle offense from Eastern Washington, but for a variety of reasons didn't use it last year: Will it be back this spring?

PW: Yes, it is. It's what we want to do. It's what we really believe in. We want to continue to work towards that. As we improve as a team and a program, hopefully we can continue to expand on that.

are some guys you expect to step up on defense?

PW: I think Andy Mattingly [who's moving back to linebacker from defensive end] is a guy we expect to do well. I think Kevin Kooyman needs to. We need him to play well. On the defensive line, we need Bernard Wolfgramm, Josh Luapo, [linebackers] Alex Hoffman and Louis Bland. All those guys have the ability to step up and play well. And we need them to. I think it's time for Xavier Hicks to make a giant step. I think he's matured and grown as a person off the field. He got in a little trouble last spring and a lot of people had written him off. But I'm a big believer in Xavier. He's a great person and he's shown great leadership skills.

Because of those NCAA penalties, you have to sit out the first three practices this fall: What the heck are you going to do and what do you supposed that will be like?

PW: It's going to be a little different. I don't know. I've never really experienced this before obviously. I think once we find out the limitations and the things we can do, we'll go from there. I'm not 100 percent sure. I think I'll be able to be involved the majority off things -- film watching, those things. I'll just be limited on the on-field practices. And the first few are non-padded anyway. It's not something as a staff or a team we're going to make a big deal about. We'll just go with it and I'll have to figure out a way to adjust.

I guess you're probably not going to prop up your feet and have a beer and watch soap operas all day?

PW: No, I won't. Some days I wish I could, but that's not going to happen. I'm sure I'll be in the office doing something, if anything working on recruiting.